FIFA World Cup

Old order changeth

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Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scoring the winning goal against England in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11. Photo: DARREN STAPLES/REUTERS

Members of the Russian team react as their goalkeeper makes a save that defeated Spain in the penalty shootout in the Round of 16 match at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 1. Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP

France’s Zinedine Zidane (second from left) is hugged by teammates after he scored a goal at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, near Paris, in the 1998 Football World Cup final match between Brazil and France on July 12, 1998. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

No team is invincible anymore. The 2018 FIFA World Cup has given hope to smaller teams that nothing is impossible.

“Oh, the foes will rise

With the sleep still in their eyes

And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’

But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal

And know that it’s for real

The hour when the ship comes in

Then they’ll raise their hands

Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands

But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered

And like Pharaoh’s tribe

They’ll be drownded in the tide

And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered”

- Bob Dylan (When the Ship Comes in, 1964)

For so long they were considered the sideshows to the main event. They would enter the stage, shine brightly for a brief while and then quietly fade away, their moment drowned and lost forever in the mad roar of the stadium. They were like the necessary hurdles placed along the glorious paths of football’s elite, essential for building up the momentum of the tournament and pushing it to its crescendo; and then they would make their exit, as though having completed their purpose in the broad scheme of things, leaving the stage for the main players. The world would applaud their efforts and cheerily send them off before quickly settling down for the “real show”, the clash of the titans. For so long they were the underdogs of the World Cup championships, who, for generations, delighted the world by adding a splash of extra colour and bringing a gritty edge to the games. But their days of living in the shadows of the giants are finally over.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (right) heads the ball during the Round of 16 match between Uruguay and Portugal at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, on June 30.   -  Andrew Medichini/AP

If there is one thing that the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia has shown, it is that the old order in world football is making way for a new age of thrilling uncertainty. The gap between the game’s elite and underdogs has reduced to the point where the term underdog itself has lost its meaning. One by one the Goliaths of the game fell to the most unlikely of Davids. Four-time champion Germany was beaten, first by Mexico and then by South Korea, and could not progress beyond the Group Stage. Two-time champion Argentina was thrashed by Croatia, held to a draw by first-time qualifier Iceland, and given a scare by Nigeria. Five-time champion Brazil, the team most favoured to win the cup this year, was defeated in the quarter-finals by Belgium. Spain, another former champion, with its team of superstars and legends, was shown the door in the Round of 16 by the host Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament (rank 70). Even England, arguably the most underrated team in the tournament, surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals for the first time since 1966, when it had won the championship. Interestingly, when the heavyweight teams did win against opponents considered much weaker, they were made to struggle and on many occasions managed to win by the skin of their teeth. The cloak of invincibility which the titans of world football used to wrap themselves with was torn asunder by their “weaker” opponents this year.

Lionel Messi reacts after France takes the lead during the round of 16 match between France and Argentina at the the Kazan Arena in Kazan on June 30.   -  Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

Shyam Thapa, the Indian football legend, said: “In this World Cup, we witnessed an absolutely new phenomenon. For so long, in India at least, the idea that one of the big teams—Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy or Spain—would win was fixed in our minds. But the domination of the game by these countries was absent this year and new teams have come up to challenge them. Earlier, the smaller teams would play defensively and win themselves credit by forcing a draw with a strong team. But this time they went for a fierce counter-attack and were more often than not victorious.” According to him, the “super teams” may have underestimated their opponents and paid the price for it. “It seemed as though they took a casual approach to the lesser teams. Germany suffered because of it, as did Brazil. These big teams will have to now introspect and bring changes to their game if they want to keep their position of pre-eminence in world football,” said Thapa.

Flashes in the pan

Time and again the underdogs have stunned the world and inspired millions with their magic before disappearing off the stage. In 1982, Algeria, playing its first World Cup finals, beat the mighty West Germans in the Group Stage. So confident were the Germans that one of the players said at a pre-match press conference: “We will dedicate the seventh goal to our wives and the eighth to our dogs.” But it was West Germany, with their star-studded team comprising such legends as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Paul Breitner, that had to eat humble pie losing 1-2. After beating Chile, Algeria was poised to become the first African team in World Cup history to progress to the second round, but a shameful act of collusion between Austria and West Germany kept Algeria out. In the subsequent match between West Germany and Austria, the former scored the first goal in the opening 10 minutes of the game. The two teams then practically stopped playing, as the scoreline suited them both. It was one of the most shameful 80 minutes in the game’s history. An Austrian commentator even told his viewers to turn off their television sets and refused to continue with the commentary. “What is happening here is disgraceful… not every end justifies the means,” said an anguished German commentator.

In 1986, it was another first-time qualifier, Denmark, which mesmerised the world with its brand of total-football, beating former world champions Uruguay and West Germany in the Group Stage before falling to Spain in the Round of 16. The world had not witnessed such a magnificent display of skill and strategy as was displayed by Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer and other Danes since Johan Cryuff and the great Dutch team of 1974.

Cameroon’s Roger Milla runs past Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita (right) after stealing the ball from him on his way to score a goal in Naples on June 23, 1990, during a World Cup match.   -  AFP

1990 was the year that Cameroon made its debut in the World Cup and immediately stamped its mark. With nine men on the field (two having been shown the red card), Cameroon beat the world champion Argentina in a brutal 1-0 victory. In the Round of 16 they were up against a formidable Colombia, with the great Carlos Valderrama in the midfield and the charismatic goalkeeper Rene Higuita, famous for his “scorpion kick” saves. The team also had the ill-fated defender Andres Escobar, who was tragically gunned down four years later, allegedly by the drug cartel for accidentally scoring an own-goal against the United States in the 1994 World Cup. But Colombia proved no match for the extraordinary 38-year-old Cameroon forward Roger Milla, who scored two goals to take his team to the quarter-finals to face England. Though Cameroon lost to England, they created history by becoming the first African nation to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Milla, who had scored four goals in 1990, created another bit of history in the 1994 World Cup by becoming the oldest man to score in a World Cup match after his goal against Russia. He was 42 years old then.

Bulgarian midfielder Hristo Stoichkov shoots during the match between Sweden and Bulgaria in the Rose Bowl stadium in Los Angeles on July 16, 1994.   -  AFP

In 1994, it was Bulgaria’s turn to stun the world. After failing to qualify for the 1990 championship, Bulgaria, led by the maverick striker Hristo Stoichkov, was out to prove itself right from the very start of the tournament. It stormed into the Round of 16, beating Argentina on the way. It then beat Mexico to reach the quarter-finals, where it ousted the defending champion, (West) Germany. Its dream run came to a stop against Italy in the semi-final when it lost 1-2. Stoichkov, or “El Pistolero” (the gunslinger) as he was affectionately referred to during his stint in Barcelona FC, ended up scoring six goals in the tournament and winning the World Cup Golden Boot.

Bulgaria never again lived up to the promise it had shown in 1994. It was ousted in the Group Stage in 1998 and has not been able to qualify for the finals since. In 1998, it was Croatia’s turn to announce itself to the world. This was the first time it was playing in the World Cup since breaking away from the erstwhile Yugoslavia in 1991 and becoming an independent country and it was a debut that myths are made of. After beating Romania in the Round of 16, Bulgaria thrashed Germany 3-0 but lost to the eventual winner, France, 1-2 in the semi-finals. However, Croatia beat the Netherlands in the third place play-off. Like Bulgaria, Croatia too could not live up to the potential it had displayed. In 2002 and 2006, it was ousted in the Group Stage; in 2010 it failed to qualify and in 2014, it once again crashed out in the Group Stage. It took the country 20 years to build a team that could bring back the glory of 1998.

New era

But all these acts of heroism were one-off cases. Each of the teams came, dazzled, and then disappeared, often not to be heard of again for a while. It was the big names of the game—Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France, Spain—that remained the constant features in the World Cup. This World Cup has completely changed everything by proposing to introduce a new era in which any team, howsoever formidable in tradition and history and line-up, can fall.

Argentina’s Diego Maradona dribbling past West German players during the World Cup final between Argentina and West Germany at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on June 29, 1986.   -  AP

Another change in the game that became apparent this World Cup was the decline of the cult of single-most important star. Gone are the days of players like Diego Maradona or Zinedine Zidane who could take a team single-handedly to the final. “It is a completely new kind of football and a new mindset today. One can no longer depend on a single, star player to see a team through. It has to be a complete team effort,” said Shyam Thapa. There is no dearth of contemporary legends such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, Luis Suarez and others, but their presence counts only up to a particular point. If Ronaldo, in the early stages of the tournament, looked like he could carry Portugal single-handedly to victory, the illusion shattered against the Uruguayan defence in the Round of 16. The great Cr7, marked by the sturdy little Uruguayan defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira, found himself helpless and hopeless as his team went down 1-2. His arch-rival Lionel Messi fared even worse against his opponents. It became clear that if a team is built around a star, it was no problem for the opponent to neutralise the impact of the star and destroy the team.

Perhaps one of the most important fallouts of this World Cup, as Shyam Thapa pointed out, is that it has given hope to the smaller teams of the world that nothing is really impossible any more.

Said Thapa: “This World Cup was a revelation for upcoming teams. Countries like Japan, South Korea and Russia were never favourites in the World Cup, and yet they all gave outstanding performances. This has rekindled the passion and hope in the smaller teams to the extent that they can now look forward to some remarkable surprises in the coming years. Who knows, but now we can actually hope that some team from Asia will win the World Cup in 2022.”